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Spotlight on Jenny Fay

A Q&A with the local artist and portrait painter, by Marta Wasielewska.

When did you start your journey with portrait painting?

I did a portrait painting diploma at the Heatherley School of fine art in Chelsea in 2011 but my love affair with oil painting started back in 2000 when I was newly married and studied art for the first time on a one year art foundation course. I just love the texture of the oil paint and the feel of it on the palette . The buttery quality and the way it sits on the canvas is somehow addictive to me. I really love trying to capture people because they are so nuanced and even identical twins are unique.

Tell me about the creative process.

I usually start a portrait with some warm-up drawings during the first sitting. I like to use a really hard black pastel to do simple line drawings. I prefer pastel to using pencil because it gives a lovely, dense, dark line and is quite scratchy so the marks are really deliberate and angular. I take just five minutes over each drawing and do lots of them, trying to capture the person's face from different angles. By the end of this process the sitter is much less self-conscious and I've 'got my eye in'.

The next stage is usually a charcoal study which helps me to understand the contours of the person's face. Because it is tonal, I don't have to worry about colour and I can really look at proportions and structure. I try to become familiar with what is unique to that individual.

Once we've decided on the composition of the painting then I can get started on canvas. If the painting is complicated, for example they want it to be set in a particular location, then I take lots of photographs of the person in the place.

For complicated compositions I do a measured drawing. This helps us decide on the size and shape of the canvas and is a way of making sure that when I scale up I don't end up with a hand dropping off the edge - that happened to me once years ago and was very frustrating!

Tell me more about mixing colours, and how different background change the tone of colour.

I have a palette that I tend to use which is three cool and three warm primary colours plus white and raw umber. I tend to avoid black from the tube preferring to make it from Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine Blue and Viridian.

Alizarin crimson and Indian yellow are two beautiful, transparent colours which give a

lovely warm, orangey colour when they are mixed with white. I like to use that as a base colour for skin tones adding greens and purples.. Of course it depends on each individual's skin. For black skin there are some lovely blues and purples; and for olive skin tones I use ochres and cadmium red.

How do you organise your working time?

If I had my way I think I would probably paint all day and all night! At the moment I have two small children so I'm only able to devote 2 or 3 days a week to my work. This isn't all studio time though as there is a surprising amount of time needed to organise exhibiting, ordering materials, marketing, liaising with new clients etc. I love having a whole day where the house is empty and I can just immerse myself in painting and that's when the really exciting stuff happens. I've had to learn from experience when not to paint because if you're really not in the right frame of mind you can end up ruining a perfectly good painting by just labouring away at it. You can destroy the poetry of a piece that way.

Do you have any artists, painters that inspires you?

There is a lovely Danish painter called Hammershoi who had an exhibition at the Royal Academy a few years ago called "The Poetry of Silence". He uses a very muted, subtle palette to great effect creating interiors that are full of, well, silence I guess! They're very calm but also incredibly beautiful. I also love the work of Andy James who is a contemporary portrait artist that I was fortunate enough to be tutored by at Heatherleys. His work is really immediate and energetic with very gestural brushmarks, lots and lots of mess and thick paint everywhere. His use of bright colour is great.

Tell me about your mood board..

The mood board is new. I made it last week using a vintage frame that I bought in a florists in Pangbourne, Ruby&Grace! My old corkboard was bowed and had fallen out of its frame, so I chopped it down to the size of the frame, backed it with board and covered it in unbleached linen. Hey presto, an upcycled board. The idea is for that board to be about words and other people's images. I have in mind for the new year to get a chalkboard where I can write down one idea at the end of a painting session that I want to pick up again in the next session. This concept of "one idea" came from one of my Heatherley's tutors, Atul Vohora. Examples would be "more space" "poetry" or "quieter". An overarching theme for the session.

We live in a digital world where portrait often relates to a digital image. Who are your clients? Portraiture is still very much alive and I think oil portraits still appeal partly because will be around for hundreds of years. I love the idea of this longevity.

Some of my clients want to mark a special occasion, and some of the portraits are for institutions. My last four enquiries were for family portraits where people want to capture a special phase in their life. It's a privilege to meet and celebrate with them the reason for the portrait, and create something that will delight them year after year. Quite often people cry when they see the finished piece. It can be moving to see a loved one captured in that unique way. That moment when I realise that I've created something that matters, that's what makes it all worthwhile.

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